A Closer Look at Hollywood Heroines: The Most Influential Women in Film History

by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)

Every once in a while, running this website leads to fascinating and rewarding opportunities. One such opportunity was the chance to contribute to the new book, Hollywood Heroines: The Most Influential Women in Film History, edited by Laura L.S. Bauer. At over 400 pages, the book is a wonderful guide through the careers of an array of women in film, from the earliest pioneers of feature animation to studio heads working today.

For my part, I contributed two entries on screenwriters – one you’ve likely heard of (Callie Khouri), and one you may not have (Leigh Brackett). Despite writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back (she passed away weeks after handing in her script) and being a credited writer on the film, I doubt many of even the most die-hard Star Wars fans know her name.

Brackett also wrote the screenplay for The Big Sleep with William Faulkner. Director Howard Hawkes read one of her crime novels and had his assistant call in “that Brackett guy.” After meeting the twenty-something Brackett, Hawkes gave her what he likely considered high praise: “She looked as if she wrote poetry. But she wrote like a man.”

From Greta Garbo to Penny Marshall to Thelma Schoonmaker, Hollywood Heroines is an astounding investigation of film history through the eyes of the women who helped shape it.

I recently spoke with Laura L.S. Bauer to discuss putting the book together and what she learned through the process.

Angela Bourassa: What was the driving force behind this book? Why was this subject an important one for you?

Laura L.S. Bauer: There were so many reasons for this book to come into creation, but I suppose the short answer is that I felt like it was needed.

First, Hollywood Heroines is the book I wish I could have picked off of a library shelf as a young film student. When I was introduced to Hollywood film history and interested in learning more about the key filmmaking positions and the filmmaking process, I was looking for a guide. I craved a broad introduction to the subject, which quickly turned into a desire to know which women had worked on what films and in what capacity. I wondered, “Were all major studio films only made by men?” It turns out almost, but not quite, and things are changing. This naturally led me to ask myself, “Why?”

Second, I developed a strong skepticism for the Hollywood creed that claims there are only two [acting] roles available for women – to be an object that is desired or protected – and that female leads don’t sell box office tickets. Of course no one would ever admit it, but I have literally heard the following sentence uttered by filmmakers and executives alike: “I don’t want to sleep with her and I don’t want to protect her, so what’s she doing in the film?” I actually have little interest in shaming those who ascribe to this mantra. Hollywood is a business and the men in charge are unapologetically making the films they want to watch. I would just like to see an equal amount of women given (or taking) the same opportunity to create films at the studio level that depict their stories, perspectives, and desires.

Of course, acquiring the means for that opportunity is an enormously complex challenge and the reasons as to why more women don’t occupy the top positions in the corporate world and Hollywood are far from straightforward. They are inextricably linked to issues such as passive viewership and consumerism, the continued unequal division of unpaid domestic labor, and the profound lack of societal support for some form of subsidized child-care and paid maternity leave. Basically, I see a tidal wave facing the modern female filmmaker.

I’m confident, however, that one of the solutions is to increase the quality of representation and general visibility of women, as well as the number of women who occupy content and decision-making positions throughout the industry. The more women you have calling the shots behind the camera, the more truthful the depictions of women will become on screen, and this will obviously have a profound effect on audiences.

So that’s why Hollywood Heroines was made. It was an effort to celebrate female filmmakers, engage in the ongoing conversation about women in film, and hopefully serve as a resource for others to build upon.

Angela Bourassa: How did you choose which women to include in the book?

Laura L.S. Bauer: This was, without doubt, my greatest challenge and one of the first things I address in my introduction. My editor and I carefully selected the word “influential” to be used in the title because there is no definitive consensus on who the most prominent women are, and scholars and industry professionals would likely have differing opinions. So each woman’s selection was based on a number of criteria that included their historical context, the precedent their work set for future generations, and the combined significance of the films in their filmography – which was sometimes based on the level of artistry, other times on box office revenue, and was often a subjective combination of the two.

Also, many women who deserve recognition weren’t included due to the physical constraints of the book or extenuating circumstances. For example, an entire section on representation (agents, managers, and publicists) was cut due to volume constraints. For this reason I included a section in the back of the book listing the names of women who I felt were also important to their field but whom I couldn’t include.

Laura L.S. Bauer

Angela Bourassa: Are there a few women who stand out to you as particularly remarkable Hollywood Heroines?

Laura L.S. Bauer: Not really. Each woman has something unique that stands out about her in the research. I will say, however, that the interviews provided a more personal perspective and thus a deeper appreciation, perhaps, for those particular women.

In the interviews, I was struck by how many different paths each of these women had walked and the variety of experiences they had. For example, on the topic of motherhood alone, one of the interviewees spoke glowingly about motherhood as a career additive while another was candid about her choice to not become a mother because she believed it would hinder her career. Another made career compromises her husband never had to consider, while others avoided the topic all together.

In the end, each woman is remarkable for finding what worked for her. I really enjoyed hearing about how they each manifested their version of success. I’d say the only major themes they had in common were their passion for what they do and the gratitude they expressed for being able to do it.

Angela Bourassa: Did you learn anything that surprised you while editing this collection?

Laura L.S. Bauer: Definitely! I was delighted to discover how many of these women had worked on the films I love. For instance, visual effects supervisor Karen Goulekas worked on The Fifth Element, which is a personal favorite of mine. I’m not sure I ever would have known that had it not been for this project.

There were also some histories I wasn’t very familiar with when I began my research. I assumed that women, for example, must have occupied at least some leadership roles in the makeup department throughout history but quickly discovered the makeup department was strictly male dominated up until the early 1970s. Certain categories, such as “costume design,” have been academically canonized due to a long history in theater, but there are far fewer resources for categories such as “makeup and hairstyling.” Susan Cabral-Ebert, the president of the IATSE Local 706 Make-up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, was an invaluable resource for this section. She was able to verify facts in some instances by obtaining a first-hand account through her connections, which was just incredible.

Not all were positive discoveries, however. I hadn’t fully appreciated how many female directors, for example, never get a second film – despite their first film being a box office success. That was a disheartening statistic to come across.

Angela Bourassa: Who is this book for? Who would you most like to read it and have it as a resource?

Laura L.S. Bauer: Well, this book is unique not only in that it focuses on women, but because it provides the perspectives of both academics and industry professionals across a wide-range of occupations, all found in one place. So anyone seeking an introduction to Hollywood film history and filmmaking in general would benefit from picking up this book in addition to those interested in gender issues.

In particular though, I’d like all high school and college students interested in these subjects to be exposed to this book! I think it’s important, especially for them. That said, it’d be nice to have it sitting on the shelves of a few Hollywood film executive offices, as well.

Hollywood Heroines: The Most Influential Women in Film History is available on Amazon.


Angela Bourassa is the founder of LA Screenwriter and the co-founder of Write/LA, a screenwriting competition created by writers, for writers. A mom, UCLA grad, and alternating repeat binger of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Angela posts articles through @LA_Screenwriter and unique daily writing prompts through @Write_LA.

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